Cambridge beefs up bomb squad
Inside an empty warehouse near Fresh Pond, the newest recruits on the Cambridge Police Department spend their first days on the job sniffing tin cans and chewing on rubber.
It’s not a hazing exercise; these dogs are learning how to detect bombs.
Their handlers – bomb squad technicians on the beefed up explosive ordinances unit – are getting trained, too. After the fourth week of classes, the bomb technicians are aptly spinning their partners around on a leash, a refocusing technique. The K-9s dutifully signal when they’ve found the right smell. When they do, they’re rewarded with a treat.
“We call that payday,” said MBTA Transit Police Officer and K-9 trainer Lawrence Culbert. “The rubber toy is the treat. That, and the praise from their handler.”
Following the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent manhunt, the department secured a fast-tracked grant for just over $1 million through the Department of Homeland Security to turn several bomb-technician-trained patrol officers into a full-time unit, said Cambridge Police Deputy Superintendent Stephen Ahern, who commands the squad.
The City Council approved a $485,000 appropriation from free cash in December to fill the remaining gaps in funding the program, which includes five new bomb-sniffing dogs. After the initial investment, Ahern said it will cost roughly $500,000 annually to sustain the program, including salaries for new officers.
Once they get the cans down, the K-9 recruits will move onto bigger targets: luggage, cars, buses, trains and buildings, Culbert said. He was a founding member of the MBTA Transit Police’s explosive ordinance unit in 1998, Ahern said, and helped train Cambridge Police on its first bomb-detecting robot.
For more than four decades, the Cambridge Police Department has had at least one person trained in handling explosives, but it wasn’t until after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the city began to invest in an accredited unit, Ahern said. Officer Edward Burke has served as a bomb technician since 1989, making him one of the longest-serving technicians in the state, and possibly the country, the officers said.
Culbert said Burke helped show the Transit Police the ropes when they were first getting started.
“Now, we’re able to return the favor,” Culbert said.
The job has changed a lot since Burke started 25 years ago. At the time, officers in bomb suits would have to X-ray the suspicious packages manually, then use ropes and pulleys to move the packages from the area and take it to a safe, empty location to blow it up, Burke said.
Now, there are robots equipped with cameras officers can operate remotely. More often than not, technicians will “disrupt” the bomb without causing it to go off. It makes the job a lot safer, Burke said.
“The technology just keeps getting better and better,” Burke said.
Initially, Ahern said the department had secured a grant to invest in a K-9 unit in 2008, but with the economy tanking, the costs were too high to sustain the program beyond the grant. After April 15, Ahern said there was more willingness on the part of city administrators to invest in the program.
Five officers were taken out of routine patrol shifts to work full-time as bomb technicians, and five new officers will be hired to take over for them. When they’re not responding to calls, Ahern said the bomb squad will spend most of their time continuing their training and educating private and institutional partners about how to recognize potentially hazardous packages.
“Being a bomb technician, there’s a lot of specialized equipment that we use and the skills to operate that equipment are perishable skills,” Ahern said. “They’ll be very busy.”
Calls for unattended packages also spiked after the Boston Marathon bombings, increasing four-fold in the immediate wake of the attacks and tapering off to triple the number of calls today, Ahern said.
That takes time away from patrolling, and it takes resources away from the Boston or Transit Police departments, who have to bring in their dogs and equipment when Cambridge gets a call for a potential bomb. The average call takes roughly 24 minutes, Ahern said, and 90 percent of the calls are for abandoned property.
“So, what we’re trying to do is reduce the amount of time on the call where the officers are tied up,” Ahern said. “We’re drawing resources away from other agencies, and we felt Cambridge was busy enough to have its own explosive detection K-9 unit.”
The unit will also be useful for the roughly 70 to 80 visits from notable people Cambridge sees each year. According to Ahern, for each visit, there are multiple “sweeps.” checking the dignitary’s motorcade, hotel room, and any venues they might be going.
It’s important the bomb technicians keep up on their training because every squad across the country follows the same regimes, Culbert said. Unlike SWAT or other tactical teams, Culbert said the FBI and U.S. Army train all of the bomb squads. The FBI oversees all of the units nationwide and funds the recertification courses required every three years after a department receives accreditation, Culbert said.
The fact the teams receive the same training was a huge benefit during the manhunt in April, Ahern said, and validated the standardized training.
“In Boston, after the bombing and in Watertown, they were organized and it ran smooth on the bomb side,” Ahern said, adding the same couldn’t be said with the SWAT teams. “It really validated that what we’re doing as a bomb squad community is the right thing.”